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Eat, Stay, Write: Bali for

October 5, 2013

New entries are dribbling online for the expanded guide to Bali that I worked on earlier this year. It’s always a delight to visit Bali, and this trip I went to the north coast for the first time in more than a decade. As with so much else on this rightly popular and renowned island, a lot had changed but the essential character that makes Bali so alluring hasn’t.

I stayed at the Lovina Beach Hotel, which turned 60 this year. Lovina has basically been built around the hotel. The Lovina Beach is definitely old school, but the rooms are fresh, the pool is appealing, everyone’s friendly, and it’s dirt cheap for what you get. At the other end of the scale, I ate a memorable dinner under the stars at Damai, “peace” in Bahasa Indonesia, a boutique resort in the hills above Lovina with views all the way to Java. Plush Puri Bagus Lovina is the winning choice if you want your luxury retreat and manicured lawns on the beach.

Just up the road from Damai, Surya and Fritz Barme showcase the spectacular view at their Ponjok Indah (Beautiful Corner) restaurant by appointment and treat you to sumptuous European food with a German accent. If you’re lucky, this Balinese-German couple may let you sample the wines they make from local fruits. Call them from Lovina on 0362 41571 for your appointment.

Kopi Shyup (+6285737179056), which didn’t make the cut for, is a comfortable coffee shop affiliated with a coffee and clove plantation located between Lovina and scenic Munduk on the road to Banyuatis village in the heart of Bali’s coffee country. It’s worth getting lost to stop by and have a walk around their mini-plantation and kitchen garden.

Further south, I added another restaurant from a best in Asia list. Although French food isn’t my thing, it’s easy to understand the appeal of Metis in Seminyak, with its elegant open air dining room overlooking vast lotus ponds.

Ma Joly on the beach south of Kuta stands out for high level cuisine in an extraordinarily relaxed atmosphere that keeps it from getting fussy or pretentious. If the white sand isn’t soothing enough, Ma Joly’s tropical sangria can help get you in the mood.

Hands down, the best meal I had was at Bridges in Ubud with founder Claude Chouinard. Bridges combines an original international menu with a classic Bali setting, perched on a lush hillside above a river. But every place I stayed, ate and explored was terrific, otherwise I wouldn’t have listed it.

I’ll be heading back to Bali next week for the tenth edition of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. (Watch this space for mews and views.) The only thing I don’t look forward to is the traffic. But even driving there can have its moments.

One compensation is the decoration on trucks. While not as elaborate as jeepneys in the Philippines, some fantasy landscapes or dream girls on the side panels are pretty spectacular. Some times it’s just the mud flaps.

Early in the trip, not far from Sanur, I saw a mud flap labeled “Dr Bombay.” That’s Bali, perfectly bewitching. Just don’t take any wooden Darrens.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Air Asia Indonesia performance doesn’t fly

June 23, 2013

Air Asia founder Tony Fernandes says “Indonesia is the jewel in our crown.” If he’s serious, he’d better upgrade his royal caretakers.

I’m a longtime Air Asia flyer. I’m used to the budget carrier’s no-frills, pay-for-it-if-you-want-it approach laden with creative surcharges, and I’m resigned to its at best indifferent customer service. But my experience with Air Asia Indonesia was a shock.

First, there’s the absolutely tacky – and in many jurisdictions likely illegal – practice of requiring that each passenger pay in advance for baggage, whether they have any or not, rather than being straightforward and simply adding that mandatory charge to the base fare. While Air Asia has always dug up ways to charge for services, it’s never gone to this extreme, making customers buy something regardless of whether they want or need it. That goes against the entire Air Asia ethos.

Far worse was the experience when I tried to fly Air Asia Indonesia from Bali to a family wedding in Makassar. My wife’s youngest brother was getting married, so she and our six year old daughter both had key roles in the ceremony. En route to the airport – I’d been on assignment for – we got caught in Bali’s extraordinary traffic as it prepares for major international meetings later this year, and arrived at 2:40pm for a 3:30pm flight.

The employee at the desk refused to check us in, even the plane had not even arrived at the airport. And, of course, Air Asia wouldn’t consider rescheduling our flights or refunding our money. We asked him for let us talk to the supervisor; this employee claimed he was the supervisor. We asked him to let us talk to the people at the gate to see if they could help us – again, the aircraft hadn’t arrived yet, so it’s not as if boarding had already begun – and he refused. As my wife pleaded and our daughter cried, the employee seemed to delight in our predicament, rather than show any desire to help us.

We appealed to other airport personnel, including the security staff, to assist us. They recognized the absurdity of the Air Asia employee’s behavior and tried to intervene on our behalf. Again, the Air Asia employee refused to show any common sense or common decency. Instead, he became confrontational and aggressive toward us. We were in a completely ridiculous situation, but it was clear that the person who could fix it wouldn’t.

Fortunately, we found an alternative flight to Makassar with another carrier at substantial additional cost, and missed nearly all of the evening ceremonies due to the later flight time. All of this unhappiness could have been avoided if this one Air Asia Indonesia employee had chosen cooperation rather confrontation as his mode of customer service. When purchased our new tickets, we couldn’t help notice that the Air Asia ticket counter’s thick glass window had been broken; apparently we are not the carrier’s first dissatisfied customers in Bali.

Perhaps worst of all, I wrote to Air Asia about the incident via its website with full details, including the name of the employee. I got an acknowledgement that the item was received but no further response. I tried to follow up without success, then began the whole process again, and again got no reply. No one at Air Asia had the guts to stand up and say the employee followed our rules and we stand by his actions, or to apologize and say they’d try to ensure future customers didn’t face similarly suffer in situations that could be fixed so easily.

So let me now ask Tony Fernandes whether he thinks his employees took good care of Air Asia’s crown jewel in this case. I look forward to his response.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen. pick Sarong rises in Miele Asia 20

March 29, 2013

Best restaurant lists usually provoke equal parts envy and ennui. I’d love to enjoy some top-notch gourmet experiences, but decorated eateries tend to be upmarket joints where dishes bear little resemblance to what real people eat and are served with sides of high prices and attitude. Moreover, my taste runs more toward dai pai dong jok (congee from a street stall) and vegetarian “meats” from wet markets.

While working on the Lovely Planet Indonesia guide and the inaugural edition of the Borneo guide, I steered travelers away from Samarinda’s purported best burgers toward authentic local foods ikan bakar lalapan (barbecued fish served with fragrant kemangi leaves) and soto banjar. That’s territory where best restaurant reviewers are rare.

But on the recently released Miele Asia’s Top 20 list, I found a restaurant that fits my taste, one that I’ve sampled, enjoyed and perhaps even influenced.

Sarong has been a mainstay at the top of Bali’s food chain for several years. It debuted at number 18 on the Miele Asia list last year and rose to 13th place this year. Friends have come back from Bali raving about Sarong, and I’ve passed the word to others on their way to Bali, many returning with their own glowing reviews. When asked to work on the guide to Bali, I put Sarong on my restaurant list and was lucky enough to sample it, along with some of the island’s other stars including Bumbu Bali and Naughty Nuri’s.

As noted in my review of Sarong, the menu captures the flavors of Asian street food and family cooking, served in elegant settings and paired with creative cocktails and fine wines. Leaving Sarong, I ran into chef Will Meyrick, and we began talking about the restaurant and the just completed meal. While the scallop appetizer, curry and roast lamb were overwhelmingly delicious, my wife (who is Indonesian) and I focused on the Acehnese specialty burung puyuh sembunyi (hidden quail) – a bird chopped into parts and buried in a mound of greens that in Aceh would be marijuana. We noted that the leaves seemed to overly indulge the Indonesian passion for deep frying. Meyrick defended the dish as capturing the essence of its Acehnese model.

A few nights later at Mama San, Sarong’s more casual sister restaurant, we ran into Meyrick again. After we thanked him for another memorable meal, he said, “A few of us tried the burung puyuh and you had a point. So we tweaked it a bit. Thanks for letting us know.” We gained new respect for Meyrick for giving credence to our opinions.

Now we’ll be happy to lend our thoughts to Robuchon Au Dome in Macau at the top of Miele Asia list or its Hong Kong cousin, L’Atelier de Robuchon, at number three. Please send an email to arrange a booking.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

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